Will the 2024 Olympics be enough to get young people to taste the sport?

The President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, believes that the Olympic and Paralympic Games (OPG) in Paris will “leave a lasting and sporting legacy after 2024”. “We want to use these years before the Games to develop the sport area… The ultimate goal is to mobilize the French,” added Tony Estanguet, chairman of the Organizing Committee.

However, the organization of the Games is not a sufficient condition to promote the commitment of a country’s population to physical and sporting activities. After the London Games in 2012, a literature review noted that the evidence for this was weak.

Read more: Physical education and sports, an unloved discipline for students?

In another analysis, studying articles around the effects of the Olympic Games from 2000 to 2018, the researchers went further. First, they note that “most studies have found no evidence of long-term effects on physical activity when hosting mega sporting events.” On the other hand, when effects on physical activity were observed, they were largely short-term or geographically limited. Finally, they found that only one study showed positive long-term effects regarding a sporting mega-event. It was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Quantifying the snowball effect caused by the simple organization of the Olympic Games therefore remains uncertain.

To promote the legacy of the Paris 2024 Games, various initiatives have been taken. Two in particular are highlighted. The first is to generalize at the beginning of the 2022 school year the “30 minutes of daily physical activity at school” system. The ambition is, defined the National Education, to bring the children to “exercise themselves more and fight against the sedentary lifestyle”.

The second proposal, “the Pass’sport”, is, as mentioned on the website of the Ministry of Sports and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, an aid “to sports training of 50 euros per child to finance all or part of their registration in a sports structure” and facilitates access to these activities for the widest audience.

Effects to be discussed

The first proposal neglects the motivational aspects underlying the practice of physical activity in young people. A recent publication shows that actions based on utilitarian goals, motivated by external constraints, do not encourage young people to continue the activity promoted outside the framework that prevents it. The simple movement of the body, the ambition to improve one’s physical condition does not lead to the practice of sport for a long time.

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To think that physical training is integrated in time, it is necessary to have accurate knowledge of the links that connect it to health improvement. This is not yet the case for children studying in elementary schools, where this measure is expected.

By proposing a system with the primary goal of improving health, policies risk having the opposite effect to what was intended. It seems more relevant to rely on more emotional levers, which are related to personal satisfaction and a strong meaning such as facing challenges, improving performance or measuring oneself against others.

Emotional levers, such as being part of a group, measuring oneself against others, play a role in the motivation to practice a sport.

Regarding the financial aid system, the intentions are laudable, but the potential effectiveness of a measure of this type must be put into perspective. Since 2009, the State of Saxony has been distributing vouchers to make it easier for young people to join sports clubs. A survey published in 2022 by a group of economists shows that the proposal has no significant short or long-term effects.

In fact, the reasons at the origin of the lack of sports training are more than the sole financial aspect and can affect the nature of the sports offer, even its accessibility and the safety conditions surrounding it . These various structural factors must be considered and targeted in order of importance.

Read more: Why promoting its health benefits isn’t enough to promote regular physical activity

On September 28, the Ministry of Sports and the Olympic and Paralympic Games announced that 250,000 people took advantage of “Pass’sport”, an increase of 48% compared to last year. This number should be put into perspective with the 7,091,788 youths already licensed to sports federations. It will also be enlightening to know the profile (gender, chosen sports skills, city) of these practitioners and know whether the beneficiaries are old or new members.

Fight against dropping out of sports

International and French studies also show that the lack of sports training among young people is associated with a dropout that starts when entering college and increases when entering high school. The reasons given are the too serious nature of the sport, the environment in which it takes place, the lack of proven skills, the weight of school work or even the abandonment of sports friends.

It is therefore a question of revising the spirit of sports policies aimed at young people. The ambition is not to give them a taste for practice. They got it. The ambition is to prevent them from losing it. This is the case today. Considering this observation, the initiatives that the government has deployed can now be changed.

The 30 minutes of daily physical activity in elementary school can be combined with the compulsory hours of Physical Education and Sports (EPS) which will see their weekly volume exceed three hours. It will be a simple and cheap solution, which will give today’s young people the opportunity to find a sport that suits them and they like. This is a discovery they can extend outside of school.

Competition is far from the only motivation to practice a sport.

Giving PE more time, however, requires that school teachers see their training strengthened for this purpose and that their teaching conditions be adapted. Parents can also be informed of the impact of sports training on their children’s well-being and their school performance.

“Pass’sport” can also be considered in another way. College students will have a “Visa sport” and thus will have the possibility to move without limitation, year after year, to the different sports structures present in their environment. At the end of the third year, they will have the possibility to choose and live in the one(s) they want.

Avoid silos

These issues deserve to rethink the points of passage between the many institutions that frame the practice of sport. The silo operation, between clubs, associations and schools, must leave the area, while maintaining the specificity of the fields of intervention of each one, with greater porosity.

Read more: To fight cardiovascular diseases, sport works at any age

Then, the sports offer will benefit from taking into account the demands of the practitioners. Sports preferences vary by gender and social and cultural background. We don’t practice sport just to win, but also to face danger, share an activity or push our own limits. If it wants to keep young people in training, today’s sports offer must be responsive to young people’s preferences and the evolution of their tastes as they get older.

Finally, it is necessary to promote activities that take place outside of any established framework, clubs or associations. Sometimes free practice approaches in more common forms, such as a football match on a lawn in the park. Other times, it gets away from it, like some football practices at the foot of a building where the players no longer fight to win, but rise by opposing each other.

Knowing these forms better should make it possible to enhance them and create conditions for them to develop freely. It is a question of thinking about the security and development of these spaces so that they correspond to the aspirations of independent practices. So here is an almost contradictory mandate: how can public action promote the development of practices that are in the private register, of free individual initiative, without distorting them?

In other words, the participation of young people in physical and sporting practices is a phenomenon that must be understood rationally and in all its complexity by public policies.

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